Never mind what was iTMOi (‘in the mind of Igor’), WTF was iTMO Akram? Ok, first let’s back up, and see if we can decipher the question. iTMOi is Akram Khan’s newest and undoubtedly craziest work, commissioned to mark the centenary of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. In fact, Stravinsky’s music makes only a fleeting, far-off appearance at the end; the score here is a combine of contributions by Ben Frost, Jocelyn Pook and Nitin Sawhney, created separately and colliding, in iTMOi, into a fractious collage of thrashy synth, faux-folk and electroacoustic exotica.
The choreography is a fractious collage too, essentially a string of set-pieces driven not by narrative logic but by imagery that clusters around themes of sacrifice, paganism, possession and above all, ritual. There is no discernible story, but there are definite characters. The opening speaking-in-tongues scene sees a black-robed shaman – the versatile and always watchable TJ (Theo) Lowe – in a controlled frenzy, his body convulsing in counterpart to his gibbers and shrieks. Next enters his polar opposite, a glacially serene woman in white (Catherine Schaub Abkarian) with an elaborate headdress that looks half the size of the hooped dress she’s gliding around in, and twice as cumbersome. Then there is the girl-child (Ching-Ying Chien, terrifically good in her scrabbling, fear-and-trembling solo) who is terrorised in one of the portentous rites, first chalk-marked by the ice woman and then dusted by the disciples as if being prepared for slaughter. Hannes Langolf is the lanky loner who rescues her from the ring and smears his body in her dust as if to say take me instead! (one of many moments that are high on melodrama and low on, well, drama). There is a dervish character, some devotees, and most strikingly, there is Andrej Petrovic, part sexy beast, part totem, who stalks through several scenes sporting long horns and a loincloth.
teeters between the mythic and the merely mystifying
If the characters are like the work’s tarot cards – its major and minor arcana – then the scenes are like the hands we’re dealt: esoteric, cryptic, constantly teetering between the mythic and the merely mystifying. From beneath ice woman’s skirt, a man emerges like a larva, already caught in a web of ropes that the devotees whip and flail, as if ritually killing off the newly born. Incense smoulders from a metal frame that rises and tilts. Two near-naked creatures writhe on the floor, heads abut like sparring stag beetles, while a golden orb swings like a planetary pendulum above them.
The concept is ambitious, the visuals are epic, the production is sleek, the atmosphere sulphurous, and the imagery, to use Khan’s own word, is “operatic” – if by that he means heightened, excessive, swollen with effect. My mind kept pinging between different horror films – Rosemary’s Baby, Japanese horror (where the crackle of static – a recurrent iTMOi motif – is a sure sign of a demon), The Pit and the Pendulum. These are potent images and sensations, to be sure, but they are never really anchored: threads of story are pulled out, then abandoned, connections made then dissolved. Which means that however great the dancing (and there’s a lot of great dancing), it’s perilously easy for the images to float off into different territory altogether. Those stiff salutes – palms on chest, elbows pointing towards the ice woman – veered into ’80s Dr Who campery, and that elaborate white hat, brimming with portent, put me in mind of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, at Ascot.
But such is tarot: visionary one moment, hollow the next, depending more on what you see in the cards than on what they show. And that is iTMOi, to a T.
Now, whether that is what was in the mind of Akram, the cards do not say.